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Putin claims Russia is developing nuclear arms capable of avoiding missile defenses

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced March 1 Russia had successfully tested new nuclear-powered weapons that could avoid any missile defense systems. (Video: Reuters)

MOSCOW — Deploying emotional language and an animation of a cruise missile streaking toward North America, Russian President Vladimir Putin used an annual speech to his nation on Thursday to claim Russia was developing new nuclear weapons that he said could overcome any U.S. missile defenses.

Putin’s speech, less than three weeks before the Russian presidential election, represented an escalated level of martial rhetoric even by his pugnacious standards. For the first time, Putin claimed that Russia had successfully tested nuclear-propulsion engines that would allow nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and underwater drones to travel for virtually unlimited distances and evade traditional defenses. 

He also warned that Moscow would consider a nuclear attack, of any size, on one of its allies to be an attack on Russia itself, and that it would lead to an immediate response. Putin did not specify which countries he considers allies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced March 1 Russia had tested new nuclear-powered weapons that could avoid any missile defense systems. (Video: Ru-RTR)

Putin made clear that his declaration of Russian prowess was aimed squarely at the United States, which he accused of fomenting a new arms race by resisting arms-control negotiations, developing new missile-defense systems, and adopting a more aggressive posture in its nuclear strategy. In doing so, he said, the United States had failed to take seriously Russia’s strength. 

“No one listened to us,” Putin said. “Listen to us now.”

Putin ally warns of new arms race in response to U.S.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said U.S. officials were “not surprised” by Putin’s comments, but gave no details about the extent of knowledge on Russian military development.

She also rejected Putin’s suggestion that Russia needed to upgrade its firepower because of defensive buildups in the West.

President Trump on Feb. 12 highlighted the military funding in the spending deal. "We're going to have the strongest military we've ever had, by far," he said. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Our missile defense has never been about [Russia],” White told reporters.

Top U.S. generals have issued warnings for months about the development and deployment of new Russian cruise missiles, urging Congress and the Pentagon to step up technology that could better defend against them. Cruise missiles hug the terrain, flying low and fast, allowing them to evade radar and missile defense systems that are designed to shoot down missiles that fly more slowly and at an arc. 

Russia has developed new cruise missiles “with the capability to hold targets at risk at ranges we haven’t seen before,” Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, the commander of U.S. Northern Command, which is assigned to defend the continental United States, said in Senate testimony in mid-February. 

Putin on Thursday described Russian missile capabilities that had been little-discussed publicly in Washington in recent years — cruise missiles equipped with nuclear-propulsion engines, giving them essentially unlimited range and the ability to follow an unpredictable flight path. To demonstrate the point, Putin showed a video animation of a missile launched in the Russian Arctic evading missile defenses as it crossed the Atlantic, rounded the southern tip of South America, and headed toward the United States.

“I hope everything that has been said today will sober any potential aggressor,” Putin said. 

What Russia’s newly announced nuclear systems actually mean

His claims in his annual speech to lawmakers jolted close observers of the Russian military. An independent Russian military analyst, Alexander Golts, said that weapons experts he had spoken to after the speech “were all in shock, as was I.”

“This is the start of a new Cold War,” Golts said. “This is an effort to scare the West.”

While the weapons Putin unveiled have likely been in development for years, his confrontational tone appeared in part to be a response to the Trump administration’s more hawkish approach to nuclear weapons. Putin said that Pentagon plans announced last month to introduce two new types of nuclear weapons and broaden scenarios for their use “provoke great concern.” 

With a defense budget far smaller than that of the United States, Russia is ill-positioned to compete in a traditional arms race. But Putin’s visual presentation of new Russian weaponry seemed designed to show Washington that it intended to maintain pace with the United States as a nuclear superpower.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the weapons Putin described were operable or how close they were to being ready for deployment. But the speech, analysts said, represented a new milestone in mounting U.S.-Russian tensions, which have been rising since the Ukraine crisis erupted four years ago. 

“Relations with the U.S. are at a point where the only thing that must be worked on every minute of every day is that this does not lead to a collision,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. 

In his two-hour speech in a historic hall just outside the Kremlin walls, Putin claimed that late last year Russia had successfully tested a cruise missile that was propelled by a nuclear-powered engine. The missile will be able to fly close to the ground and follow an unpredictable flight path, rendering existing missile defenses “useless,” Putin said. 

He also said that Russia in December had concluded a multiyear testing cycle for an underwater, nuclear-powered drone. 

The successful tests, he said, “will allow the development of a complete new type of weapon — a strategic complex of nuclear arms with rockets fitted with a nuclear-propulsion engine.” 

The speech also came at a significant domestic moment.

With the March 18 presidential election looming, the Kremlin is looking to high voter turnout to add legitimacy to what appears certain to be a fourth six-year presidential term for the 65-year-old Putin, who first took power in 1999. For the first half of the speech, Putin talked about improving Russians’ lives at home, promising to double government spending on roads, health care and regional development. 

The talk of high-tech weapons, analysts said, suggested to Russian voters that Putin was ensuring their security even if many domestic problems remained to be fixed. 

Putin’s speech “radically changed the aesthetics of foreign policy,” said Konstantin Gaaze, an independent Russian political analyst. “This aesthetics is based on the principle of ‘Russia can carry out a global nuclear strike on any point it chooses.’ ” 

Putin’s comments come ahead of the U.S. military’s planned release of its new missile defense policy. Though U.S. missile defenses were initially conceived during the Cold War as a way to shield the country from Soviet missile threats, they evolved after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. to focus on defending against rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran.

The 44 missile interceptor silos that the United States operates in Alaska and Hawaii and the Aegis and Thaad installations it operates with its allies in Asia and Europe would prove no match against a full-blown, multi-missile attack by a peer competitor such as Russia. Those systems would more likely be successful in downing a limited number of missiles launched by North Korea or a single missile accidentally launched by Russia.

The United States has installed Aegis missile defense systems in Romania and Poland, which has angered the Kremlin, even though Washington has long said the installations are primarily aimed at countering an attack on the United States or its allies from Iran. Russia has long argued that those installations violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a claim that the United States has denied.

Brian Murphy and Paul Sonne in Washington contributed to this report.

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